In age of Trump, GOP learns to embrace government activism

AP News
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Posted: Dec 06, 2016 3:42 PM
In age of Trump, GOP learns to embrace government activism

WASHINGTON (AP) — After eight years of denouncing President Barack Obama as a big-government activist, congressional Republicans suddenly appear eager to welcome a big-government activist to the White House.

This time, of course, he's one of their own.

Many Republicans applauded when President-elect Donald Trump intervened to help keep appliance manufacturer Carrier's jobs in Indiana, a deal that cost state taxpayers about $7 million in tax breaks and grants. When the Obama administration got involved on behalf of the auto industry and individual companies, Republicans were quick to brand it "crony capitalism" and the government "picking winners and losers."

Republicans are sounding receptive to Trump's plan for a massive $1 trillion infrastructure bill, after years criticizing Obama's smaller $787 billion stimulus package that the administration pushed through Congress with little GOP support in 2009 to try to pull the country out of a financial catastrophe.

Even Trump's recent threat to levy 35 percent tariffs to discourage companies from relocating overseas has met with mostly muted opposition on Capitol Hill, though the idea flies in the face of the GOP's traditional support for free trade.

"It's consistent with our goal to make American businesses and American products more competitive in the global economy," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., insisted Tuesday about the tariff idea, even while suggesting Congress was unlikely to act on it. "We believe the best way to achieve that goal is through comprehensive tax reform."

Ever since Trump's surprise win last month on a platform full of populist ideas that run counter to Republican orthodoxy, the question for Republican leaders in Congress has been whether they will follow his lead on such proposals, or whether more traditional GOP policies will prevail.

Some Republicans insist that's a false choice, arguing that Trump and congressional Republicans agree more than they disagree, such as on their plans to repeal and replace Obama's health care law. In other cases, like with the tariffs, they share the same general goals and can compromise on how to get there, some Republicans said.

"His positions on trade are somewhat different than members up here have, but we'll figure out a way to sort it all out," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. "It'll probably be a negotiation."

Yet after a highly contentious campaign season during which many Republicans, including Ryan, supported Trump reluctantly if at all, it's been striking how quickly congressional Republicans have rallied to the president-elect's side. Even when it comes to core GOP goals like entitlement reform and free trade, Republicans' enthusiasm over having one of their own in the White House appears to be making it easy for them to overlook fundamental policy disagreements.

"I do believe he has somewhat of a mandate. He's shown a way that a Republican can win in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and that's essential," said Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a conservative who's never been shy about challenging GOP leaders in the House. "I'm not prepared to criticize the president yet, at least until he takes office and we see what we get."

Ryan has seemed particularly reluctant to take on Trump of late. During the campaign the speaker initially withheld his endorsement from Trump and later, after the release of audio of Trump boasting of groping women, declared he would not campaign for him or defend him. Trump, in turn, lashed out at Ryan over Twitter as a "very weak an ineffective leader."

After the election, Ryan was effusive in praising Trump's win and has complimented him at every turn, insisting that they talk all the time and will be working "hand in glove."

Ryan's spokesman, Brendan Buck, disputed a question about divisions between Trump and the congressional GOP.

"Reporters are trying very hard to divide us, but when we can still achieve the same goal through other means, we're not going help feed into that bogus narrative," Buck said.

The quick acquiescence by many GOP leaders to Trump's ascent has frustrated the few Republican lawmakers who are still willing to speak out against the president-elect.

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan has been outspoken in criticizing Trump's moves since the election, including his intervention with Carrier, his proposal to punish people who burn the American flag, and his tariff plan. Amash said GOP leaders should be more forthright when Trump proposes things that run counter to GOP beliefs.

"I think they should be, and we'll see what happens when Mr. Trump is actually president and things will have to pass through Congress," Amash said. "I think sometimes he says things knowing that Congress will not pass his proposal."

And even as Republicans seek to paper over their disagreements with Trump, Democrats hope to exploit them to divide the GOP, and make common cause with Trump themselves where possible.

"We're beginning to see the fault line emerge, the divisions that will dominate Washington," Senate Democrats' incoming leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Tuesday. "Only this time, instead of the fault lines falling between Democrats and Republicans, they're falling between the president and his own party."